In this important (1981) piece Kenneth E. Reid explores a pivotal time in the development of the theory and practice of working with groups within social work. He assesses the contribution of Grace Coyle, W. I. Newstetter and other key figures and reflects on the emergence of ‘social group work’.
Contents: preface · introduction · social casework · settlement houses during the depression · progressive education · small group theory · education for group work · movements in search of a method · the 1935 national conference of social work · group work for therapeutic ends · endnotes · how to cite this piece.
[page 103]Perhaps no period in the history of the United States is filled with as marked contrasts as those years from 1920 to 1936. A substantial number of Americans came to believe that isolation was the only safe policy for their country. They rejected any new ties with the outside world and sought to dissolve existing connections. Yet, the United States had inherited from the past continuing responsibilities abroad, and actual ties with the outer world did not simply dissolve. The change in the way in which Americans appraised their relations with other countries was linked to the spreading discontent within their own society. In earlier times, they had been confident about the excellence and durability of their own institutions, and nationalism had been compatible with involvement. Citizens of the United States had no doubt that their own democratic form of life was best not only for themselves but also for other people.
By 1920, city dwellers outnumbered rural inhabitants. Of the 106 million people in the United States, 54 million lived in cities, and by 1930, approximately 70 million in a population of more than 138 million were city dwellers. The growth of the cities during this period can be attributed to the opportunities they provided for acquisition of wealth, but also for the excitement and freedom that had been traditionally associated with urban living. The city was able to assimilate the ever-increasing flood of new arrivals, primarily from rural areas, because of the numerous technological processes that had been perfected after the Civil War. The expansion of the railroad system, the refrigeration of meat, and the canning of fruit and vegetables made it possible to crowd together, in a relatively [page 104] small area, a vast number of people who were unable to produce their own food.
With the growing number of people, adequate housing and office space were at a premium. The use of elevators and structural steel permitted cities to grow skyward, while at the same time, subways, elevated railroads, and the automobile made it possible for them to grow horizontally. Each of these developments had been lauded as effective ways of reducing urban congestion, but ironically, each in turn, aggravated rather than eliminated the problem. The lesson that urban congestion feeds on congestion was to be learned and relearned with each successive generation.
The need for adequate living, recreation, and work space was not an easy problem for cities to resolve. Skyscrapers built in the city’s most congested sections provided additional office space but at the same time increased the number of people within the area. Factories were located on the cheaper land in the city’s outskirts. Pieces of property that were not being used as either factories or office buildings went by default for housing. The indigent lived in slums in structures that had been abandoned years earlier by the well-to-do. Crowded together, lacking adequate sanitary systems, and an easy prey to disease, the poor were living examples of the ruinous results of urban congestion.
Immigration, which had always been a major contributor to America’s diversity, was reduced to a trickle in the years following World War I. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted the number of immigrants to 3 percent of the number from each nationality that had been living in the United States in 1910. This act was followed by the Immigration Quota Act of 1924 which made 1890 the base year and reduced the quota from 3 to 2 percent. Legislation to reduce immigration was the result of pressure from the labor unions and from super-patriots who desired a completely homogeneous America.  Many of those who desired greater uniformity within the country felt that drastic steps needed to be taken to chastise those who did not meet their standards. The Red Scare of 1919-1920, when [page 105] police arrested thousands of political eccentrics and a few communist subversives, served to galvanize the anxieties of those who were fearful of America’s decline and “takeover by foreigners.” In addition, home-grown fascist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan organized as instruments of terror against Jews, Catholics, and Negroes.
Another extreme attempt to bring about conformity was the experiment with national prohibition. The Volstead Act, which was enacted in 1919 to reduce drinking, proved that it would take more than legislation to make most Americans change their habits. Citizens from all walks of life, who would not have thought of breaking other laws, cooperated with racketeers to violate the prohibition statute. Bootleggers, speakeasies, and gangsters like Al Capone were the chief beneficiaries of the “noble experiment.”
The fear of radicalism had its counterpart in the realm of religion. The fundamentalist feared that a “new” or “liberal” interpretation of the Bible would weaken traditional Protestantism. Reacting against scientific theories of the evolution of man taught by Darwin, the fundamentalist insisted on a literal belief in the Scriptures. Prohibition of the teaching of Darwin’s views was enacted into law in many states. In Tennessee, John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was indicted in 1925 for teaching Darwinism. In the so-called monkey trial, Scopes was found guilty, but the fundamentalist view was held up to ridicule and suffered a drastic decline.
An older order was passing. Industrialism, urbanization, and the mere increase in the numbers involved complicated all human relationships and led to the breakdown of the inherited systems of social control. Progressive reform measures solved some problems but also created new ones. The family, the church, and other community organizations adjusted painfully, and not always adequately, to the shifting needs of their members. The 1920s was the era of the ticker-tapes and jazz, of “flaming youth” and the automobile. In this brittle, somewhat manic period, there was little concern with values other than those symbolized by dollar signs or the resistance to old [page 106] standards. During the 1920s, the population as a whole enjoyed a higher standard of living, better health, and more education than their parents. To all but the “intellectuals,” and those working in settlement houses and with charity organization societies, the mood of the time was one of optimism that the future held nothing but increased health, wealth, happiness, and continued growth.
This optimism came to an abrupt halt as the collapse of the stock market in October 1929 ushered in the depression of the 1930s. The depression revealed the internal contradictions of the existing economic and social order, and created a complex and interlocking set of problems that would occupy the United States for a whole decade. The number of people out of work rose steadily until over fourteen million persons were unemployed; the industrial plant stood idle much of the time; the farm situation deteriorated to the point of anarchy; and the banking system of the country neared collapse. Suffering was acute, as provision for monetary assistance of the unemployed was totally inadequate in responding to the size, intensity, and duration of the crisis.
The need for reform again became a major issue, and the last three years of the period saw the federal government take on major responsibility for public welfare through a multitude of programs designed to protect individuals and the national economy from the impact of this and future depressions. The program devised under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt started the process of reconsideration of the relationship of government to the economy and imbued the people with a sense of hope so that they could pass through the trial of the years after 1933 without succumbing to despair. This achievement was an important one in a decade when other countries were surrendering their faith in democracy.
The emergence and acceptance of Freudian theory exerted a major influence on social casework in the 1920s. The experience of working with shell-shocked patients in the war period strengthened an enthusiasm for psychiatry which provided [page 107] what was needed to understand the inner person. Freudian psychology, to the average worker, was a welcome substitute for the sterile laboratory psychology that emphasized diagnosis, classification, and intelligence tests. Within a short period of time, the profession made a radical shift from concern with environmental factors to preoccupation with the intra-psyche. With this change came the addition of such words as “libido,” “ego,” and “ambivalence” to the social caseworker’s vocabulary. The concept of “relationship” as developed in psychoanalytic literature became part of the caseworker’s stock-in-trade, while “dynamic passivity” came to be a therapeutic style.
While the new knowledge supported the prior acceptance and acclamation of Mary Richmond’s book Social Diagnosis,  it drew attention away from the “social” and redirected it to the inner self. The focus was now on the individual and his personal conflicts rather than on the various systems impinging upon his life.
The Freudian influence reshaped the role of the caseworker. In accordance with Freudian technique, the social worker departed from the stance of doer, a provider of concrete services, to that of passive observer. With this change came the concept of a detached professional attitude, with stress on the worker keeping his feelings and activities in abeyance. It also meant a different type of client. Using Freudian technique meant limiting services to those clients who could respond to the use of a less active approach and to those problems that did not require immediate action.
Freudian theory overshadowed all other approaches to social problems and orientations about behavior. By 1930, casework teaching staffs in schools of social work taught psychoanalytic principles as a basis for casework practice, and it was not unusual for both faculty and students to undergo psychoanalytic therapy as a part of their training. The outlets for this form of practice were expanded by the emergence of child guidance clinics and veterans’ programs and by the development of psychiatric social work specialization.
Another milestone in the development of social casework was the Milford Conference Report released in 1929. Prior to this time, definitions of social work in general and social casework [page 108] in particular tended to take on the coloring of the specific field in which it was practiced. Rather than workers being referred to as social caseworkers, they were children’s caseworkers, hospital social workers, family social workers, psychiatric social workers, and so forth. The Conference Report underscored the generic base of social casework which the participants felt to be much more substantial in content and more significant in its implications than the emphasis on the various casework fields. As the basic aim of social casework, the conference specified not the development of personality, but “the human being whose capacity to organize his own normal social activities may be impaired by one or more social deviations from accepted standards of social life.” 
Settlement houses during the depression
After World War I, the reform activities of the settlements declined partially because of the Red Scare and a conservative reaction to the war resulting in the discouragement, by boards and councils, of activities that could be interpreted as radical. There were also financial difficulties because of new buildings, expensive equipment, and the growing number of paid workers. In the earlier years, residents could depend upon the donations of philanthropists for support, but, as many of these benefactors died it became harder to attract new ones. Settlements also began to affiliate with the developing community chest campaigns, which resulted in a loss of financial independence and a further restriction in experimental programs. 
Another reason for the decline was the inability of the settlements to attract dedicated workers, especially those interested in social reform. The number of settlement scholarships was reduced, which limited the number of young people who could spend a year or two after college working in a settlement. Most of those who chose to become settlement workers in the 1920s thought of themselves as social workers rather than social reformers. They had been trained in recreation or in casework and “scientific” charity, and were critical of the more traditional practices that seemed sentimental and haphazard. [page 109]
Whereas the early settlement workers viewed their work as a way of life, the newer workers considered their work as a job. As the sentimental and emotional tradition was stripped away, in the process some of the crusading zeal of the Progressive movement was lost. 
The stock market crash of 1929, followed by the depression, brought about a renewed interest in social reform which was combined with the task of meeting the material needs of those whom they served. Chicago Commons settlement, for example, was deeply involved in encouraging social action to improve the living conditions of the unemployed workers. Where once, brief months or years earlier, various ethnic groups used the halls of the Chicago Commons settlement for educational or recreational activities such as citizenship classes, dances, and folk celebrations, Italians, Poles, Greeks, and Mexicans began to assemble in 1930 to study the depression. Discussion and debate covered many topics, including the need for work relief through public works, the need for state and federal assistance to cash relief funds, and the need to develop security through old age pensions and unemployment insurance. The outcome of the discussions was a city-wide workers’ Committee on Unemployment in 1932, composed of fifty local units, twenty-two of which were settlement-based and -led, with a membership of over 20,000. Lea Taylor, daughter of Chicago Commons director Graham Taylor, reported to the National Federation of Settlements at the end of the year: “The men are developing initiative and responsibility through serving on committees and delegate bodies. They have organized self-help projects and have sought direct contact with legislators interested in relief measures.”  One of the major accomplishments of this organization was to organize a protest march on Chicago’s city hall to make known their problems.
Just as settlements in Chicago were at the vanguard of social protest, settlements elsewhere were moving toward direct political action. They argued to whoever would listen that families were being disrupted by the economic problems and that the social services generally available to help them were breaking down under the impact of overwhelming need. They demanded that an immediate program of public relief be set [page 110] up for meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter for the millions of unemployed. They urged that work relief programs be established so that individuals would again be able to be self-supporting. Finally, they pushed for institutionalized assistance programs, sponsored by the federal government, to guard against loss of income because of death or retirement.
The influence of the early settlements was fully felt in the period of the New Deal. As Schlesinger reports:
Hull House, Henry Street, the Consumers’ League and the other organizations educated a whole generation in social responsibility. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Herbert Lehman, and Adolf A. Berle, Jr., all worked at Henry Street; Frances Perkins, Gerard Swope, and Charles A. Beard at Hull House (where John Dewey was an early member of the board of trustees); Sidney Hillman at both Hull House and Henry Street; Joseph Eastman at Robert A. Wood’s South End House in Boston; and Iowa boy coming East from Grinnell College in 1912 went to work at Christadora House on the lower East Side of New York; his name Harry Hopkins. Through Belle Moskowitz the social work ethos infected Alfred E. Smith; through Frances Perkins and others, Robert F. Wagner; through Eleanor Roosevelt, active in the Women’s Trade Union League and a friend of Florence Kelley’s and Lillian Wald’s, Franklin Roosevelt.
And for all the appearances of innocence and defenselessness, the social workers apparatus wielded power. “One could not overestimate,” observed Wagner, “the central part played by social workers in bringing before their representatives in Congress and state legislatures the present and insistent problems of modern-day life.” The subtle and persistent saintliness of the social workers was, in the end, more deadly than all the bluster of business. Theirs was the implacability of gentleness. 
By the mid-1930s, the service and reform aspects of the settlements were different than they had been in the past. The New Deal brought aggressive intervention on the part of the government, and social welfare policy and social experimentation ceased to be the prerogatives of private agencies. The times demanded programs quickly and on a large scale that only the resources of the federal government could supply. The settlements in general had lost much of their basic thrust in social reform and increasingly shied away from programs that would draw criticism. More specialized agencies took over some of the [page 111] settlements’ programs. Local governments, for example, commonly provided playgrounds, kindergartens, adult education, and Americanization programs. Often, settlements merely supplemented their former programs in order to maintain their initial investment in building and equipment.
A significant development in the field of education during the 1920s was the expansion of the average school’s curriculum. The first eight grades of public schools, which had at one time taught little beyond the three “R’s,” enlarged their curricula to such an extent that by 1930 the typical elementary school offering included as many as thirty different subjects. There was a corresponding increase of courses in the high schools. Since large numbers of the children were drawn from every background and represented different degrees of intelligence, considerable emphasis was placed on practical subjects. Boys were taught machine shop practices and woodworking; girls attended classes in sewing and cooking; all could study typing, stenography, and bookkeeping.
Curriculum changes were sometimes accompanied by new teaching methods reflecting the philosophy of progressive education. Learning by rote and complete reliance on textbooks gave way to an emphasis on individual differences among students and an attempt to make learning an exciting experience rather than a series of dreary, unconnected tasks. Severe classroom discipline was abandoned for a more informal attitude based on the assumption that interested pupils seldom present behavior problems. Efforts were also made to integrate subjects, and frequent use was made of available library resources.
The philosophy of progressive education, based on the writings of John Dewey and William Kilpatrick, was received with great interest by those working in leisure-time agencies and settlement houses. They were well aware of the shortcomings of traditional educational methods which they considered outdated. Writing in 1902, Jane Addams attacked educators for their failure to prepare students for social relations: [page 112]
The educators should certainly conserve the learning and training necessary for the successful individual and family life, but should add to that a preparation for the enlarged social efforts which our increasing democracy requires. The democratic ideal demands of the school that it shall give the child’s own activities a social value: that it shall teach him to direct his own activities and adjust them to those of other people. We are not willing that thousands of industrial workers shall put all of their activity and toil into services from which the community as a whole reaps the benefits, while their mental conceptions and code of morals are narrow and untouched by any uplift which the consciousness of social value might give them. 
In spite of this concern, the early group work movement inherited traditional educational philosophy and teaching techniques. Most work with group practice was based on the assumption that the elements constituting “character” could be taught in the same way English, arithmetic, and social studies were taught. As schools began to consider critically their methods of educating children, those working with groups also began to question their methods. Some of the practices which came under question were the use of formulas, the emphasis on specific learning, the regimentation of boys’ and girls’ organizations, many of the traditional club forms in institutions as well as the extensive devotion to competitive athletics, and the faith that play on playgrounds, more than any other significant part of a child’s life, prevented delinquency and “built character.”
A major factor in group work’s new interest in progressive education was the work of Grace L. Coyle, who had been strongly influenced by John Dewey. Coyle, born in 1892 in North Adams, Massachusetts, received her A.B. from Wellesley and a certificate from the New York School of Social Work. After several years as a settlement worker, she joined the staff of the Industrial Women’s Department of the YWCA where she was responsible for adult education and recreation. In 1923, she started the first course in group work at the School of Social Work at Western Reserve University.
Coyle’s experiences with women in industry through YWCA programs, with groups of children in settlements, and with discussion groups in the adult education movement led to a series [page 113] of preliminary formulations on group process which were articulated in her dissertation and published in Social Process in Organized Groups (1930). In discussing the evolution of structure, Coyle utilized Dewey’s definition. She wrote:
The structure of organized groups consists of the agreed upon instruments through which the group puts its purpose into action. They take the form sometimes of written constitutions and established precedents; sometimes of unwritten or even unspoken assumptions, commonly accepted by the organization as a permanent part of the group life. Their apparent stability is in fact, an illusion produced by the more swiftly moving processes that go on by and through them. They too change and shift as the group creates, uses and modifies them for its purposes. 
This concept came, as Coyle declared, “directly from John Dewey’s Experience and Nature.”  Coyle also viewed leadership in light of Dewey’s philosophy. In any organization, there exists the “necessity for the investiture of certain individuals with a public character, a responsibility for these common [page 114] consequences of weal and woe for all participants.”  Then, quoting Dewey, she wrote: “The ultimate source of authority will determine the direction of its flow. Most of our organizations reflect the common democratic mores.” She concluded this discussion by stating that: “[p]sychological reactions of a most complex sort are constantly remaking both leaders and group together by their reciprocal stimulus and response. Out of that interaction group morale and decisions are born and group functions performed.” 
By the late 1930s, it was recognized that a reformulation of group was necessary and that the methods and philosophy of progressive education were not only most compatible, but also had the most to offer. Bowman prophetically saw the change occurring in four areas:
First, integration. Emphasis in group work will be placed, I believe, more on the relation the work bears to the problem of the individual, his place in society, his combination of interests. .. . Second.. .. A group will get together for as long a period as there is interest and profit in the members remaining together. . . – There will be less competition and fewer inter-institutional athletic contests.
Third, leaders. . . . It will be out of place for a leader to take pride in “being good” to his group in any paternalistic way. Affection for one’s charges will be a part of group leadership, but the aim will be to adjust them emotionally to their associates in successive undertakings. The emphasis will be more upon the interaction of the members than upon direct leadership.
Fourth, in the large social implications, the teacher or leader in progressive education lays emphasis on no pattern as such. . . . (It is more important that the individual learns to cooperate with others in various active spontaneous original and adaptable ways for various ends.) Group experience and not a pre-imposed or preconceived notion of order is the aim. 
In 1939, a book entitled New Trends in Group Work was published based on the writings of group workers using progressive education methods and of leaders of the progressive education movement. At least half of the chapters dealt specifically with group work as education and a significant [page 115] number with group work as progressive education. Common to the various authors was the belief that group work had accepted a task that was educational in nature and related to development of personality through group experience.
Small group theory
Until the mid-1930s, the theoretical orientation of social group work came almost exclusively from progressive education and the social psychology of Cooley. After that, practitioners and faculty who taught group work and recreation skills began to look to other sources for knowledge regarding groups. One such source was the University of Iowa and the work of Kurt Lewin and Ronald Lippitt. They and others had set up a series of experimental studies on the effects of certain types of leadership on group structure and on the member’s behavior. The researchers compared three types of leadership— democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire—by having adult leaders behave in a prescribed fashion. It was their general conclusion that there was more originality, group-mindedness, and friendliness in democratic groups, and more hostility, aggression, scapegoating, and discontent in laissez-faire and autocratic groups.  Although the results of their studies influenced the leadership styles of club leaders and youth group leaders, the research was to come under attack by social work leaders for experimenting with human emotions. Had there been more receptivity at the time to experimental methods of research, the results of these studies might have had more influence on the use of groups in social work. 
Another source of knowledge came out of the research of J. L. Moreno, an Austrian psychiatrist, and his associate Helen Jennings. During World War I, Moreno had administrative responsibilities for a camp of displaced persons in Austria. It came to his attention that the adjustment of individuals in the camp seemed to be better when they were allowed to form their own groups. Later, while associated with a reform school in the United States, he undertook to check this observation out through more systematic research. With the use of a simple [page 116] questionnaire, he measured the interpersonal relations of people by the choices they registered of desirable partners for work and play in particular activities.  The data concerning “who chooses who” were converted into a “sociogram” or picture in which individuals were represented by circles and choices by lines. It became apparent that through this subjective technique, valuable information about interpersonal attraction and repulsion among collections of people could be learned. Study of such sociograms revealed that some groups were more tightly knit than others, that individuals varied in their social expansiveness and in the choices they received, and that cliques formed on the basis of characteristics such as age, sex, and race. Group workers used sociometry as a means of determining the interpersonal process going on within a group at a given time. In addition, it was used to draw attention to such features of groups as social position, patterns of friendship, subgroup formation, and, more generally, informal group structure.
Those social workers working with delinquents and gang groups were influenced by social psychologists such as Clifford Shaw, Frederic Thrasher, and William Whyte. Shaw, author of The Jack Rollers, and Thrasher, who wrote The Gang, were employed by the University of Chicago and were associated with the Institute of Juvenile Research to study the internal workings of autonomous street gangs. One result of their work was the modification of professional work with autonomous groups, especially in settlements and youth organizations. Whyte examined the informal and formal social organization of the Italian community of Boston. By spending time with the members as a participant-observer, he was able to gather information on the effects of group life both on the individual participant and the social structure of the community. In his book Street Corner Society,  Whyte discussed his findings, with special attention to such dynamics as cohesion, interaction, structure, leadership, and status.
Muzafer Sherif pioneered in research on the “autokinetic effect,” or the phenomenon of a still light giving the appearance of moving when viewed in a dark room when the viewer has no point of reference for measuring its location.  When estimates [page 117] were made as to the amount of movement in the presence of several people, the judgments of the observers were influenced by each other’s opinions and converged toward a mean. Sherif’s research revealed that the influence of the group was a powerful force in changing individuals’ attitudes and could be utilized in intercultural relations.
It was speculated that the group members would unconsciously adopt the values of the leader and other influential members, particularly around such issues as discrimination. These values would be, carried outside the group and incorporated into the participant’s relationships with others.
Education for group work
The first sequence of graduate courses on group work services was offered by the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University in 1923. Before then, those interested in receiving education and experience in group leadership were directed to agencies working with groups such as social settlements, recreation centers, and playgrounds, and to courses offered on playground management and recreation. Schools of social work, while desirous of students with experience with groups, generally considered group work as something that could not or should not be taught in a university setting. This attitude is illustrated in a report on social work education written in 1915.
Of these three general types of clinical activities (case work, group work, and community organization) social work with groups is the most elementary. It demands sufficient skill to justify the requirement of practice work under supervision, but it approximates so closely the non-professional activities in the social work field with which students are usually familiar, that they find little difficulty in adjusting themselves to the groups assigned to them.. . . The experience of schools of social work… indicates that group work possesses too little educational value to be given much emphasis. .. . With few exceptions, clinical work with groups will have a very small place in connection with training in community organization (i.e., social settlements, community centers, play ground associations). 
[page 118] In the years before social group work became a course or a curriculum in a school of social work, it was customarily viewed in terms of its setting rather than its methodology or its practice, and those working with groups were identified with the agency in which they were associated. For example, those individuals working in settlement houses were “settlement workers,” while those working in YMCAs were “Y” secretaries. With the establishment of the Playground Association of America in 1906, the titles playground director and recreation worker came to have recognition. In the same year, the New York School of Philanthropy offered a course of study that prepared students for positions as head workers and assistants in social settlements and other social and religious organizations. By 1913, a full course of study for playground and recreation workers was instituted.  Similarly, the St. Louis School of Social Economy, in 1911, offered a one-semester course entitled “Gymnastics in Athletics, Games and Folk Dances,” followed by the course “Neighborhood and Group Work.” In the latter, focus was on training students to work with groups in settlements and social centers. 
One of the major precursors of social group work education was the recreation curriculum directed by Neva Boyd (1876-1963) at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.  A kindergarten teacher by training, Boyd was thoroughly convinced that the spirit of any group came from the interaction of its members, and it was this spirit that provided substance from which the group derived lasting benefits from their experiences together. If a worker was to be effective, it was essential that he know how to help a group develop its own program rather than to superimpose a series of activities unrelated to the cultural milieu of the members of the group. According to Boyd, the role of the worker was to help the group develop its “natural spirit” rather than fit the members into a predetermined system.
A statement published in 1922 about the functions, qualifications, and training of group workers summarizes the need and opportunities for training which existed just prior to the formal institution of the first group work course. [page 119]
The group worker must understand the psychology of the group, must be able to conduct the kinds of activities which groups can do and enjoy doing, and must have that identifiable “group leadership” quality which can make an often haphazard collection of individuals a live, coherent group. It is hard to define these qualities, hard to isolate the technique, yet there is a skill which grows with practice, which has been acquired under certain conditions, and without which a successfully, constructively active group cannot be conducted.
As has been suggested, much of the group work lay in the field of leisure time activities, where it benefits the individuals through recreation, self expression, physical development, mental improvement and character building. The group worker must, therefore, have special equipment, such as ability to direct activities, teach games, lead group singing, coach dramatics or teach handicrafts. He may, however, only organize clubs and stimulate them to activity; they themselves can conduct….
Training for the group work technique has not yet been well developed. Besides entering the work through study in the training schools for social workers, there is the possibility of apprenticeship training. There are few opportunities in settlements for resident positions which offer definite training and in addition provide board and room. However, because of the small number of these training opportunities and because most of the paid positions in group work require more maturity and life experience than the person just graduated from college possesses, many positions are filled by people from other fields of social work who have demonstrated as volunteers a capacity for group leadership. 
The first course on group work offered by Western Reserve University was intended to afford training for positions of playground director. For an academic year, a range of field experiences “under supervision” was offered with students placed in such agencies as social settlements, the Department of Public Welfare, and the Humane Society. In addition to field practice, students were required to take such courses as “Normal Demands of Childhood” and “The Philosophy, History, Theory and Practice of Play.” 
In 1923, the Cleveland Girls Council, a coordinating agency of girls’ organizations, pressed the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University to develop a course in group service. The course was to provide training for men and [page 120] women interested in working with groups in the Cleveland area. In the fall of that year, a training course in group service work was offered. It was designed to:
[t}rain workers in the principles and methods of dealing with groups through club and class leadership, through promotion of activities and administrative work in social settlements, community centers, young men’s and young women’s organizations whose purposes are to give direction to the lives of their members through their group associations. 
A growing concern in the 1920s among practitioners working with groups was how to provide continuity of service when there was staff turnover. Linked to this concern was the desire for teaching records, similar to the ones already in use by caseworkers, to teach group work. Under the guidance of Clara Kaiser, a faculty member at Western Reserve, a number of instructors began to meet periodically with several group leaders to develop a system of recording. By 1930, a set of records was published “for the use and criticism of teacher and group workers.”  The records were samples from recent student social workers in field placement at the University Neighborhood Centers, from 1926 to 1930. Through the records, Kaiser attempted to develop a form of recording that would describe the important facts in the organization and development of a given group.
Concurrent to the study and use of records conducted at the Neighborhood Centers was the research on group behavior, called the Wawokiye Camp Experiment, done in 1929. Fifty-one different boys were given a camping experience. The goal of the experiment was to do research on group work and gain new insights into the special problems of boys. The findings of the research, published by Wilber Newstetter, the director of Camp Wawokiye, Marc Feldstein, and Theodore Newcomb in 1938, dealt with the concepts of bond, interaction, and status, and demonstrated that the needs of individuals could be fulfilled and people could grow individually through group associations.  The research focused attention more sharply on the individual in the group, his adjustment to the social [page 121] situation, and the group worker’s role in relation to the individual members. This delineation reinforced the idea that work with small, stable groups was a way of realizing the larger goal of a more democratic, humanitarian society for all people. The major contribution of Newstetter’s work was the demonstration that experimental research could be done in “natural settings” and that phenomena of groups could be studied and documented.
Many thought that the introduction of a social group work sequence into the curricula of an increasing number of schools, after the example of Western Reserve University, was premature in view of the prevalent state of knowledge of social group work as a method in social work. As late as 1934, Philip Klein said, without expectation of contradiction, that of the four technological divisions of social work, only social casework had received “reasonably adequate discussion in the professional literature.” Group work, preventative and educational work, and community organization on the other hand, “[a]lthough clearly differentiated in practice, in the distribution of personnel in the curriculum provisions of professional schools and in meetings, conferences, special associations and committees, still lack comprehensive formulation.”  In spite of this concern, there was a steady growth of group work courses in schools of social work. The Committee on Current Practices and Problems in Professional Education of the American Association for the Study of Group Work, which made a study in 1936 of available training programs, found that thirty-three schools were offering at least one or two graduate courses in social group work. In twenty-three of these schools, the courses were taken in conjunction with supervised field work practice. 
Movements in search of a method
By 1920, the settlement movement was thirty-six years old and, while on the decline, was recognized as part of the urban scene. Public recreation, after the establishment of the first playground in 1885, had won wide recognition during World [page 122] War I as an essential service and was making steady progress. The adult education movement was developing into a regular part of the public school system and the public library. Of the youth service agencies, the YMHAs, YWHAs, YMCAs, YWCAs, Campfire Girls, and 4-H were all organized national movements with considerable staff. Although most of the early pioneers had died, their administrators were well established and their staffs were growing.
Volunteers were an important part of the organizations; increasingly, however, agencies began to employ professional workers. Professional and in-service training of some sort was beginning in many agencies; experience was accumulating; national conferences were stimulating technical discussions. The consciousness of common problems and the clarifying of the issues as met in daily practice had created a “felt need” among professional workers. In reflecting on the changing perspectives on groups and the need for better trained workers, Coyle wrote:
It is no accident that when our movements—settlements, public recreation, YMHA’s, YWHA’s, YMCA’s and YWCA’s—began to concern themselves with methods, that concern inevitably leads them into questions about human relations. It turns up at that point for the same reason that similar concerns in worker’s education, management, education lead to the same questions. The wider reasons for this lie in our social scene. Urban living, mechanized industry, mass commercialized recreation, impersonal education—all the more determining aspects of life—act to squeeze out the essential human response, the intimate relation of one person to his own immediate group. Social relations, natural and inevitable in the small town of our forefathers, must be consciously preserved in our society. The need of human beings for a rich fare of human contacts and responses is a real element in all of our groups, societies and other organizations. It is not enough however merely to open clubrooms and classrooms, recreation centers and playgrounds. The doors of our agencies have stood open now for fifty to sixty years. As we have worked within those clubrooms we have been forced to recognize that, when certain people acted as leaders, the groups were not only more fun for the participants but that more people got more out of them. When others led them, the groups were arid, mechanical, sometimes sentimental, occasionally, actually demoralizing.  [page 123]
Most of the workers had college training, and some of them had training in schools of social work. As these workers came to know each other, there was a ferment of discussion around two major discoveries. First, it was discovered that workers in a variety of agencies had a great deal in common and that the major component of that common experience lay in their experience with groups. Out of this recognition came the widespread use of the term social group work and the development of interest groups focusing on work with groups in a number of cities. The second discovery was that what was common to all the groups was that, in addition to the activities in which the group engaged, groups involved a network of relationships between the members and the worker, between the group as a whole and the agency and neighborhood in which the members lived. This combination of relationships was called the group process. This second realization produced a search for deeper insights into these relationships, an attempt to describe them and to understand their dynamics.
It was for those involved in this search a period of excitement and ferment, of social discovery and of deepened insight as we tried to clarify both our philosophy and its aims and values and our methods of dealing with groups. It is perhaps sufficient to say.. . that by 1935 enough people in cities and agencies across the country had become involved that there inevitably began a period of formulation. 
Thus, it was no surprise that Margaretta Williamson, in her study the Social Worker in Group Work  (1929), found that while there was not a clearly defined homogeneous form because of divergence in method and motive, there was
evidence of a growing awareness of common professional ground—a recognition of a similar philosophy, a convergence of training and technique, some interchange of personnel, and a tendency toward exchange of experience.
Workers are seeking the development of the individual to his fullest capacity and encouraging more satisfactory relations between the individual and his environment. .. . Group work concerns itself with service toward individuals in a group, brought together through common interests and [page 124] guided by means of suitable and congenial activities toward a well rounded life for the individual; and for the group, a cooperative spirit and acceptance of social responsibility.
Group work undertakes to guide the group life. .. maintain[ing] that normal and satisfying group activities tend to develop in the individual a richer personality that is emotionally sound and effective in its adjustment to other people. . . [and] that group life is the means of passing on the social patterns, customs and conventions by which society is organized. The group director is trained in activities and processes thought to be developmental to those with whom he is dealing. He meets leisure-time needs by socially minded leadership. He seeks to direct activity into constructive channels. . . . He desires the individual to experience situations calling for character-forming decisions. … He lays a foundation for responsible citizenship by encouraging participation in self-regulatory groups. He cultivates the friendship of the individual and seeks to share his problems and achievements. 
Largely as a result of the development of group work curricula in schools of social work, questions began to be raised as to whether the base was in the area of education, recreation, or social work. Social casework had gone through a similar struggle, and many caseworkers felt strongly that anything lacking psychological dynamic grounding was not appropriate for the social work profession. Others, such as Mary Richmond, felt that casework and group work were closely related. At the National Conference of Social Work in 1920, she commented on this relationship:
This brings me to the only point upon which I can attempt to dwell at all, to a tendency in modern casework which I seem to have noted with great pleasure. It is one which is full of promises, I believe, for the future of social treatment. I refer to the new tendency to view our clients from the angle of what might be termed small group psychology…
Halfway between the minute analysis of the individual situation with which we are all familiar in casework and the kind of sixth sense of neighborhood standards and backgrounds which is developed in a good social settlement there is a field as yet almost unexplored. 
In spite of these remarks, there is little evidence that social caseworkers participated in the process of social change other than on an individual basis. This emphasis on the individual [page 125] and consequent refusal to face social and economic facts reflected the social worker’s new preoccupation with psychiatry and psychoanalysis as well as the conservative and economic climate of the post-war years. The deeply rooted conviction that moral inadequacy lay at the heart of most problems of poverty and dependency was now reinforced by an overemphasis on psychological inadequacy.
Social workers who worked with groups often found greater camaraderie with members of other disciplines, such as recreation and education, than with individuals doing more traditional casework. There was the feeling by many group workers, that caseworkers had lost their commitment to social reform and social action. Even though caseworkers spoke of changing communities and solving problems, such as poverty and unemployment, their real commitment was to working with people on a one-to-one basis. The increasing interest in professionalism of social work in general, was viewed by many group workers as leading to further corruption of the reform tradition. If the social causes of maladjustment, and the broader programs of prevention were neglected, significant changes achieved in social welfare over the previous fifty years would be lost. The common denominator for all who called themselves group workers was their conviction regarding the value of group work as a medium for individual development. Those working with groups felt the need to share ideas, beliefs, and experiences with others working with groups. In approximately 1930, a New York Conference on Group Work in Education was formed. Members included Arthur L. Swift, William H. Kilpatrick, Joshua Lieberman, Le Roy Bowman, and Henry Bush. In 1934 it was instrumental in sponsoring a weekend meeting at Ligonier, Pennsylvania, for the purpose of examining research techniques for group work, evaluating training processes, formulating and assessing standards and recent factors of social change, that had implications for group work. The meeting was attended by group workers from Western Reserve, Ohio State, and the Chicago Committee on Group Work. One important result of this two-day meeting was the initial planning for the National Association for the Study of Group Work which was founded in 1936. This association is discussed in detail in Chapter 5. [page 126]
The 1935 National Conference of Social Work
Before 1935, no formal papers dealing with group work had been presented at the National Conference of Social Work. A number of the individuals who had been present at the Ligonier Conference in 1934, petitioned the Conference to add a social group work section at the 1935 meeting to be held in Montreal. This request was granted, and papers on group work were called for, both from educators and practitioners. The topics of the papers accepted for presentation centered on issues such as the definition of group work, work with those who had special needs, the contribution of research and community studies to group work, and the coordination of group work agencies, especially as they related to public and private agencies. The paper delivered by Grace L. Coyle received the Pugsley Award, given by the Editorial Committee of the National Conference of Social Work, in recognition of its contribution to the subject of social work at the Conference. This honor also reflected credit on social group work and on the School of Applied Social Science at Western Reserve where Coyle was a faculty member. 
W. I. Newstetter delivered the first paper to the section with the question, “What Is Social Group Work?,” pointing up the necessity of distinguishing between group work as a field, group work as a process, and group work techniques. He defined group work as a “process” that focused on the “development and adjustment of an individual through voluntary group association and the use of this association as a means of furthering desirable social ends.”  These other social ends included cooperation, social legislation, peace, a planned economy, social attitudes, and love of country.
Newstetter predicted quite accurately that one day curricula in schools of social work would be changed because the goals of casework, group work, and community organization would be nearly identical, and it would be discovered that the techniques of the three models had many similarities. He noted that his definition of group work set it apart from casework, which focused primarily on the individual in a one-to-one relationship. [page 127] He called attention to the new experimental efforts in casework, such as dealing with families as a group over a period of time.
The acceptance of group workers into the fraternity of social work bears testimony to the broadening base of social work and an emphasis on generic concepts. It can be partially explained by the need felt by caseworkers for more adequate treatment resources. It is being increasingly recognized that both caseworkers and group workers have much to give each other, and that generic social work can only be achieved to the extent that the contributions of both are focused upon problems demanding application of both methods. 
Roy Sorenson, acknowledging the relatively few differences between group work and casework, predicted their emergence into an integrated method.
The group worker is talking about individualizing the program, recognizing the uniqueness of personality, and understanding more about the social history and family of group members with socialization needs. The concept of “guidance” has developed within group work agencies to the extent that a literature, personnel and conference structure has appeared. The Boston Y.W.C.A., has four trained interviewers, an educational guidance person, a vocational guidance person, and a social psychiatric worker to provide individualized services to those who come for group activity. 
According to Sorenson, caseworkers were recognizing the possibilities of the group as part of the casework process, with the group used as a means of treating some types of personality adjustment. However, group work was at the stage where it was critically in need of definitions, terminology, record forms, and professional recognition. 
Two of the papers dealt with the use of groups as a vehicle for the treatment of physical and mental illness. Anne Smith, reporting on her work with children in a medical hospital, observed that many of the children viewed their illness as punishment for something they had done. Through the use of groups, a climate of trust and reassurance was developed. “Like a stranger in a foreign land who suddenly hears his own language, [page 128] the child reaches out to play as an assurance of friendliness in a bewildering situation.” 
The second paper emphasized the importance of play. Neva Boyd, in a paper on the use of groups in the treatment of the mentally ill, delinquent girls, and the retarded, described the goals of these experiments. They centered on helping children and adults experience the opportunity of planning their own leisure time; encouraging initiative rather than superimposing ideas; minimizing rivalry and competition between groups and group members; and selecting “[a]ctivities which hold the greatest possibilities for growth and directing them in such a way that the potentialities of the individual, however limited, are called into action [so that] a fuller utilization of the individual’s powers may be accomplished, and a more harmonious, constructive social life achieved.” 
While the majority of the papers presented stressed that the group workers should direct their efforts toward the same objective as caseworkers, a small minority argued that group work should not align itself with social work. LeRoy Bowman, identifying himself as a social worker, opened his paper with a challenge:
This paper will not be pleasing to those who think that group work is primarily social work; or that it is a new field that needs the techniques the people have previously acquired; or that it opens up areas for social workers in which they can extend their usefulness without laboriously learning new ways; or that it neatly supplements case work and combined with the latter, gives an easy comfortable way of encompassing mentally the whole field of organized effort to serve people. 
Bowman also reported that group work was neither a job of rehabilitation, nor a service to those who asked for help, nor a social service like casework. Rather, group work was a social mechanism which perfectly competent people utilized to achieve their own ends. To the extent that it was used by social workers to serve groups of underprivileged persons or those who were physically or mentally ill, it was merely an adaptation. 
Arthur Swift, director of field work at Union Seminary, questioned the tendency to think that anyone could lead a club, maintaining that without adequately trained and professionally [page 129] competent leaders, group work could not come into its own. While recognizing the value of the volunteer leader in certain situations, he believed that professionally competent leaders should carry the major responsibility for group work. The essentials of training in group work according to Swift were:
Field work in the observation and leadership of groups under skilled supervision, supplemented by discussions and lectures dealing with the place of group work in the field of social work and of social history, the underlying philosophy of group work, the contributions to it of sociology and of psychology, educational, social, and individual, the place of group work in a program of social action, and the acquiring of skills in the conduct of group programs. 
A recurrent theme of the section was the use of groups as a way of strengthening democracy. This concern would be articulated again and again as events in Europe spread to America, fostering fascist and communist ideologies under the guise of providing a quick solution to complex social problems. Grace Coyle’s paper “Group Work and Social Change” best exemplified this position.  She urged the participants to examine the quality of the group effort they were providing. Did it allow for democratic participation, or did it instead encourage a dependency upon authoritative leadership. According to Coyle, it was the responsibility of group work to transmit cultural heritage to individuals and to re-evaluate this heritage when it became inadequate to meet the new circumstances of a rapidly changing time. The group worker could contribute in several ways.
(1) In the first place he can encourage and develop social interests within his own groups. This takes skill and insight, but it can be done. These will often culminate in the group participating in social action as it sees fit. The educational process in this line cannot stop short of experience in social action if it is to be effective. (2) He can help members of this agency, as they mature, to find their place in the organized life of the community, in those social action groups through which their collective interests are finding expression. (3) He can see that provision is made in the agency for the free discussion of the basic economic and social conflicts which are so crucial to adequate solution of the present crisis.  [page 130]
Group work for therapeutic ends
Neva L. Boyd’s paper, presented at the 1935 National Conference of Social Work in Montreal, described the utilization of group work for therapeutic purposes at the Chicago State Hospital for the mentally ill.  According to Boyd, the experimental recreation program begun in 1918, was directed by a man trained in Denmark in gymnastics, two women trained in recreation, and a second man trained on the job. The recreation staff, after consultation with the ward physician, determined the choice of activities. Patient wards averaging close to 900 people with a whole range of psychiatric disturbances represented were selected as subjects. The workers found that gymnastic exercises were valuable in working with both excitable and extremely apathetic patients. The patients were brought to an improvised gymnasium in groups of approximately sixty and were given a forty-five minute period of marching to piano music and easily executed exercises. Once the patients were able to handle this type of activity, they were advanced into more complex patterns of activities such as games and group dances. Those with special skills were asked to assist the workers. For example, patients who could play the piano were invited to play for the marching, while the more stable patients were used to set the pattern for those who tended to wander out of line. It was believed that if the severely ill patients watched the worker as well as the more stable patients, they would be influenced to participate. It was reported that no patient was ever coerced to participate but all were encouraged to take part. 
Another early experiment in group work was carried out at the Geneva Training School for Girls, a reform school for delinquent girls in Illinois. In 1932, the school employed a group worker to work with the girls in order to give them an opportunity to plan their leisure time.  According to Boyd, the program
[a]s ultimately evolved by the girls and the group worker created an unprecedented esprit de corps and culminated in a satisfying climax on the last night when all the girls gathered around the campus and entertained [page 131 each other with activities especially prepared for the occasion, closing the program by singing in unison songs familiar to them all. Good will and joy prevailed, at least temporarily, throughout the group. The whole project was safeguarded against rivalry and competition; no mention was made of one cottage excelling another, no prizes were offered, and no special privileges given to the “good” girls or withheld from the “bad” ones. This intensive experience in cooperative planning required considerable organization of the cottage groups and made a good beginning in coordinating the girls into working units easily made permanent. 
The units evolved into clubs, and the group worker met with the girls regularly for the purpose of facilitating rather than restricting their freedom or superimposing ideas upon them. Although the worker’s principal function was the establishment of recreation, the very nature of the activity forced the girls to deal with behavior problems arising among the various members. During one of the meetings, the girls asked the group worker to leave. Another staff member, curious about this, was told that “one of the girls had done something too bad for her [the group worker] to know about it, and they were taking it up in the club to see what ought to be done.” 
During the summer of 1929, the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research introduced an experimental group work program into the Lincoln Illinois State School and Colony, an institution for the retarded, to create happier conditions for the children and to conduct research on the treatment of the mentally retarded. Groups were established with a membership of up to twenty children who were taught dancing, sports, and games. The leaders observed that if the activities such as basketball and square dancing, were taught as a whole rather than as separated actions, the children learned faster. It was concluded by the researchers that recreation for mentally retarded children did more than merely occupy their time. They maintained that by selecting activities that held the greatest possibility for growth and by so directing them that the optimum potential of the individual would be called into action, a fuller development of the individual’s powers could be accomplished, and a more harmonious, constructive social life achieved. The researchers found that the children quarreled less, played more happily and resourcefully [page 132] together when undirected, worked more willingly, attempted to escape from the institution less frequently, and were less destructive of the clothes and equipment. 
There was a growing belief by some workers in 1936 that group work by its very nature had an inherent therapeutic element and should be used to assist individuals suffering from emotional problems. In 1936, Emory Bogardus, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, wrote in Sociology and Social Research that group workers were engaged in activities that were more strategic than they had ever dreamed. He viewed group work as augmenting casework and contributing to its success with disturbed clients. He also felt that the early identification of personality problems could prevent these disturbances from becoming chronic and unmanageable.  Three years later, he carried this idea a step further when he observed that group work philosophy included a therapeutic reorganization of unadjusted club members. Referring to the writing of S. R. Slavson, he noted that group opportunities could lead to a better balanced personality.  The therapeutic purpose of group work was deeply imbedded in everyday activities such as creative handicrafts and art craftwork, club participation and discussion, and being a functioning member of a democratically operating association. 
. School of Applied Social Sciences: A Graduate Professional School of Western Reserve University in the City of Cleveland, 1916-1917, (Ohio: Western Reserve University Annual, Catalogue, 1916), p. 3.
. Ann Elizabeth Neely, “Current Practices and Problems in Professional Education for Group Work,” in Harry K. Eby (ed.), Main Currents in Group Work Thought: Proceedings of the A.A.S.G.W. 1940 (New York: Association Press, 1941), P. 58.
. Mary E. Hurlbutt, Chairman, “The Pugsley Award,” Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 1935 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. vii. “The Editorial Committee was unanimous in judging Dr. Coyle’s paper on ‘Group Work and Social Change’ to have made the most important contribution to the subject of social work at the conference of 1935. Dr. Coyle discusses the group process as a “significant mode of social action in the contemporary world. Social participation today requires not simply relation to the state but an assumption of responsibility to various group relations. Hence, the opportunity of group work as an educational force for social change. The theme is handled creatively, so that it becomes directly applicable to practice, and is at the same time, serenely rooted in a wider cultural perspective.”
. Roy Sorenson, “Case-Work and Group-Work Integration: Its Implication for Community Planning,” in Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work, 1935 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. 311.
How to cite this piece: Reid, K. E. (1981) ‘Formulation of a method, 1920-1936’ in From Character Building to Social Treatment. The history of the use of groups in social work, Westport, Connecticut. Available in the informal education archives: https://infed.org/mobi/social-groupwork-formulation-of-a-method-1920-1936/
Acknowledgements: This piece has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the writer. Picture: Evening institute watercolour painting. Reproduced under a PSI licence
© Kenneth E. Reid 1981
First placed in the archives: June 2003
Last Updated on June 22, 2019 by infed.org